As pointed out in our previous paper, the Church universal is presented in Scripture as Christ’s building, as His body and as His bride. It is never addressed as a responsible entity. On the other hand the local church is viewed as a responsible body. Moreover man’s building enters into it. Paul says to the Corinthians, “I have laid the foundation”. That refers to his preaching in Corinth which laid the basis of the local church. Paul clearly did not lay the foundation of the Church universal.
It existed before he came into it. With regard to the foundation that he had laid however at Corinth, he says, “another buildeth thereon”, 1 Cor. 3. 10. Then he warns against building in spurious material – wood, hay, and stubble.
The New Testament churches comprised all the believers in a locality. Thus, the first Epistle to the Corinthians is addressed to the church of God existing in Corinth, to the sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints (i.e. saints by divine calling), with all those calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (theirs and ours) in every place, 1. 2. Note the words all in every place. Paul planted churches in many cities and towns. When he wrote to the Christians in a region such as Galatia, he addressed them as the churches of Galatia. There was no regional church in the New Testament. Likewise John in sending the Lord’s messages to the seven churches, addressed “the seven churches which are in Asia”. They are named specifically. There were other churches in Asia which are not addressed. There is no exception to this pattern in the New Testament.
It is absolutely clear that each local church is held responsible to the Lord alone. Subject to His authority and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, each church was an autonomous body. No church had any jurisdiction over any other church. There were no regional or national authorities, no synods, no diocesan bishops. The only church council (if it may be so called) was that held at Jerusalem and this consisted of the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem to whom Paul and Barnabas went from Antioch for consultation. It was not a council of churches such as developed in later days. When Paul the apostle, and founder of the Corinthian church, wrote his second Epistle, he says: “Not that we have dominion over you and lord it over your faith, but rather that we work with you as fellow labourers”, 2 Cor. 1. 24 amplified version. Even the great apostle did not claim such an authority as grew up in later years. The responsibility of the local church to the Lord alone is most clearly brought out in the Lord’s messages in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 to the seven assemblies in Asia. Each is addressed specifically, and is warned by Him. He calls to repentance. He threatens the removal of the candlestick where there is no repentance. Each assembly is held responsible to Himself alone.
Unlike the Church universal as the body of Christ, unbelievers and false teachers may be found in the local church. Sinning saints may also be present. The local church is held responsible to deal with these in discipline. In the message to Ephesus, Rev. 2, the Lord commends that church for their intolerance of wicked men and for having tried false apostles, whilst He charges Pergamos with harbouring those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, and Thyatira for tolerating the false prophetess Jezebel. Paul calls for the excommunication of the incestuous brother and any person who is a fornicator or covetous or an idolater or a railer or a drunkard or an extortioner, 1 Cor. 5. 9-13. Failure to exercise discipline in the local churches is the cause of nearly all the evil that has marred the Christian testimony down the ages.
In the New Testament the only form of church government to be found is that of local elders. These elders are also referred to as overseers. Two Greek words are used, presbyteros (“elder” is a precise translation) and episcopos for which “overseer” is an accurate equivalent. The situation is brought out clearly in Acts 20. 17, 28 R.V. “And from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus, and called to him the elders of the church … Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in the which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops (overseers), to feed the church of God”. They were made overseers by the Holy Spirit. This same word is sometimes translated bishop elsewhere, e.g. Titus 1. 7, bishop being simply an anglicised form of the word episcopos. But the term bishop today usually means a man who supervises a diocese covering many places. Such an office did not exist in New Testament times and it infringes the New Testament principle of local responsibility. Titus was told, as the apostle’s delegate, to appoint overseers (elders) in every city in the island of Crete – not an overseer (bishop) for the whole island – small though it was. In Titus 1. 6-9 the qualifications for local church elders are specified. They are quite rigorous. Similar qualifications are insisted on in 1 Timothy 3. 1-7, a passage which should be read carefully. A plurality of elders (overseers) marked the local churches of the New Testament, and from 1 Timothy 5. 17 we learn that some laboured especially in teaching – indeed aptitude for teaching was a necessary qualification for all. When we compare the New Testament pattern with what we see around us today, the extent of the departure is evident. Some would say it is development. To us it looks more like confusion, and God is not the author of confusion. In closing, it may be remarked that the recognition of a single overseer or bishop began in Antioch with Ignatius (martyred a.d. 107). Afterwards the custom of one local church with one bishop gradually developed into one bishop over many churches, until the bishop of Rome ruled over most of Christendom. This move was thus a fatal step in the history of the professing Church. Church history shows that it opened the door to the rule of man in the Church of Christ. It formed the basis of popery.
The New Testament pattern is clear enough: one church in every place, governed by elders qualified by blameless lives and ability to teach, whose work is to feed and shepherd God’s flock.
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